And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith, for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.” Matthew 17:20 NASB
Impossible – Wouldn’t it be nice to have faith like this? We could fix all our problems in life. We could right all the wrongs just as easily as moving mountains. Isn’t this what Yeshua guarantees to those who really believe? Of course, if that’s the way we read this verse, then it is certainly a condemnation of most of us. We don’t have any excuses except lack of faith. But if you say this isn’t what He meant, then you’ll have a lot of gymnastics to perform about the plain meaning of the text. How do we resolve this dilemma?
Perhaps we can take a hint from something Adin Steinsaltz says. “What we perceive as the dichotomy between ‘matters of faith’ and ‘indisputable facts’ has less to do with rationality than with what is socially acceptable within our particular society, social group, and historical age. What ‘everybody knows’ is something that we do not feel obligated to prove to ourselves. For the same reason, those things that are not a part of our accepted wisdom are left to the believer.”
Steinsaltz’s insight can be applied to Yeshua’s teaching. The words “impossible” and “faith” were what “everyone knew” in that culture. They required no further detailed explanation. These terms do not fit our definitions of “impossible” and “faith.” It is quite unlikely that anyone listening to Yeshua thought about the impossibility of changing lead into gold or traveling faster than the speed of light. It is just as unlikely that His audience thought of faith in terms of the Apostle’s Creed or the evangelical Sinner’s Prayer. In order to understand what this text means, we must first ask ourselves what these people would have considered “impossible” and what they would have understood as “faith.”
When we pay attention to the culture, we realize that Yeshua’s statement is a rabbinic technique called kal vechomer (from light to heavy). Yeshua is not teaching that anything you wish to do you will be able to do if you have faith. He is comparing two kinds of “faith.” The context of this statement is the failure of His disciples to exorcise the demon from the boy. This failure leads to an obvious question. “Why couldn’t we remove the demon?” Yeshua’s comment is about the mistaken conclusion that super-faith is somehow different than ordinary faith. What He says in essence is that even the “smallest” faith is sufficient if used by God. The comparison with impossible things reflects a rabbinic view that extraordinary works of the Spirit can be accomplished through the most ordinary believers. The example of moving mountains is not to suggest that any kind of physically impossible act may be done through some spiritual means but rather to teach that even the most insignificant faith is more than enough for God. Yeshua’s statement is rabbinic hyperbole aimed at teaching His disciples not to consider their failures to accomplish their own goals as grounds for questioning their relationship with God. “Faith is not a measureable commodity but a relationship, and what achieves results through prayer is not a superior ‘quantity’ of faith but the unlimited power of God on which faith, any faith, can draw.”
Topical Index: faith, impossible, Matthew 17:20